As president of the Nauvoo Illinois Stake, Hugh Pierce presides over a stake rich in Church history and which includes even a bit of Americana.
Within the stake's boundaries are both Nauvoo, "the city of the saints" from 1839-1846, and Carthage, where the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were martyred June 27, 1844.Other towns in the stake that have been touched by Church history are Quincy, Ill., and Keosauqua, Iowa.
Quincy, located about 50 miles down the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, is where early Church members fled during the winter of 1838-39 after Missouri's Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued his infamous extermination order.
Keosauqua, located in eastern Iowa, is near the site where the saints crossed the Des Moines River in their 1846 exodus from Nauvoo, and where the Nauvoo Brass Band performed a series of concerts to raise funds to help the members on their westward journey.
The stake, which has four wards and three branches in a three-state area covering a radius of about 125 miles, also includes a slice of Americana at Hannibal, Mo. Hannibal is the Mississippi River town made famous by American novelist Mark Twain in his Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn novels.
Pres. Pierce, a native of Moultrie, Ga., and his wife, Josephine, have lived in Nauvoo since 1971. They are acutely aware of the rich legacy of the city.
"I never thought I would be living in Nauvoo," said the stake president, who, in 1977, was the first Latter-day Saint since the 1840s to be elected as the town's mayor. He served as mayor for four years.
He was called in March 1988 as president of the Nauvoo Illinois Stake. "This is one of the most peaceful places I've ever been," he reflected. "There is such a beauty and quietness here. Especially at night, everything is so quiet.
"Sometimes I think about what a great experience it is to live in a place where four of the prophets – or men who became prophets – walked; to walk the same streets, to view the same natural beauty they looked upon, to see the beautiful sunsets reflected on the river, to see some of the homes where the early members lived. My wife and I have such good feelings about this place. Even though we've been here a long time, we feel a new excitement."
Pres. Pierce explained that other than what he learned in religion and Church history classes at BYU, he didn't really know much about Nauvoo until he moved here. He joined the Church with his family in Georgia when he was 12. "We didn't know much of Church history at all while we were in Georgia," he said, noting that for several years he, his parents, an aunt, an uncle, a grandmother, and one other person were the only members of the Church in the town.
"We held meetings at home for about 11 years. We dealt mostly with Church principles. We knew a little about where the early members lived, but we didn't know much about the historical sites of the Church."
Over a period of about 11 years, he was the only deacon, the only teacher, and then the only priest in the south Georgia town. He developed a deep appreciation for the opportunity to associate with other Church members. In Nauvoo, he has many of those opportunities.
He said Nauvoo is a popular tourist attraction. After the Church began restoring some of the old homes here, there has been a growing effort among townspeople to beautify their homes and other areas. Some of the old-fashioned river boat tours on the Mississippi dock in nearby Keokuk, Iowa. Many passengers then take short bus rides to spend a few hours in Nauvoo.
Pres. and Sister Pierce own and operate a motel in Nauvoo, and he works in maintenance for Nauvoo Restoration Inc. "About 65 percent of tourists who come to this area especially to visit Nauvoo are LDS," according to Pres. Pierce. "It means a lot to them to see these Church historical sites. The youth especially enjoy coming here. They see living examples of what life was like for the early saints; when they study Church history, it means so much more to them."
He noted Church members enjoy a good relationship with other citizens in Nauvoo today. "We've been encouraging members to be more civic minded," he said. "A lot of members belong to clubs, work on community service efforts, and serve on school boards. Several have served on the city council and the library board.
In addition to serving as mayor, Pres. Pierce has been president of the Lions Club, and has served on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and the Park District, and on the boat harbor committee.
"Our relationships with the different towns in the area is really tremendous. We have only five families who are LDS in Carthage. The townspeople get to see a lot of Latter-day Saints because of the visitors going there. We always get good comments.
"The relationship we have here in Nauvoo is tremendous. In a town with a population of over 1,200, we have six religious denominations. The town is predominantly Catholic. When I was a bishop (1979-1982), I belonged to the ministerial society; the bishop of the Nauvoo Ward now belongs to it. Members of the Church participate in all kinds of community activities. The townspeople support us during the annual `City of Joseph' pageant."
Members in the stake don't just bask in the history that surrounds them; they also work to add to the spirit of Nauvoo. Regular attendance at the temple in Chicago helps strengthen the stake. Home teaching and visiting teaching receive constant emphasis.
"The strength of the stake, which was created in 1979 by President Ezra Taft Benson, then of the Council of the Twelve, lies in the dedication of its members," declared Pres. Pierce.
He said that for many years the Church relied heavily on members moving in from other areas to provide leadership in the wards and branches. More and more, leadership positions now are being filled with long-time resident members. "It shows a maturity when we can take care of our own and don't have to rely on people coming in," the stake president affirmed.
When Pres. Pierce was elected mayor, it took a while for him to realize he held the same civic office once held by Joseph Smith. He doesn't dwell on the connection, and talks about it only when others mention it.
"Whenever you serve, you always feel a certain challenge, and maybe wonder if someone else could do a better job," he said of his calling as stake president. "But I've always had a desire to serve wherever I've been called. I try to do the best that I can. I don't think I'm any different from any other stake president. It's a challenge to know I'm responsible for about 1,700 brothers and sisters. Thank goodness for good counselors, bishops and branch presidents!"